Last year I wrote about the rooks we see and hear from our garden. Their constant presence, and that of crows in the fields around us was probably what prompted me to read Crow Country by Mark Cocker. It is a fascinating book in many ways but today I have been thinking of what he writes about his connection to both the place where he lives now and where he lived as a child.
He talks of feeling a sense of possession, of ownership of a particular, familiar territory. He describes what I feel about this part of Lincolnshire where I have fetched up. It belongs to me and I belong to it; ever more so as I learn my way around the back roads and through tiny villages. The shape of the land, turns in the road, particular trees are become familiar, even as the views, the colours and the light still make me shout in surprise and joy.
I remember feeling this way about London when I was a teenager and later, in my twenties, when finally I lived there. I revelled in my growing knowledge of the city, each confident step a claiming of it as my own.
I wrote a while back of imagining coming back to this place where I live now at some time when I no longer lived here, sinking to my knees and plunging my hands into the earth like an exile returned. I go further; I imagine that I could, just now, walk out into the nearest ploughed field, lie on the rich, cold earth and disappear, merge, become a part of it. And in that imaginary desire to become one with the dense clay there is such a lightness and a freedom. This connection, this relationship requires nothing of me but love. I possess and am possessed: equilibrium.
A few weeks ago I wrote about a fourteenth-century ancestor living on the Lincolnshire Coast. At the weekend I was in London to see my mum – staying just across the river from the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern – and revelling in a bit of history of some centuries before my ancestor’s ancestor even arrived in this country (perhaps).
I have loved London for so much of my life but these days I am often wearied by the rampant inequality and deadening, decadent consumerism which seem inescapable in the city. I’ve turned unfaithful late in life and fallen for lovely, empty Lincolnshire.
But I still love the River Thames, vast and tidal like the sea, a workaday, working river, and full of ghosts: of long-dead boatmen, dockers, playwrights even. And here in this unprepossessing part of the City is this piece of ancient history; such a gift.
Queenhithe is the only surviving inlet on the modern City waterfront. It was probably a Roman dock or harbour and later a Saxon one. It got the name of “Queenhithe” when Matilda, daughter of King Henry I, was granted duties on goods landed there.
Two thousand years ago people unloaded goods on this dock; more than a thousand years ago they came to market here. And a thousand years from now, something else will be here: perhaps nothing that we would recognise, except, I guess, the mighty Thames. And so, what a sense of liberation and of hope there is in contemplation of my smallness, seen against the tide of centuries. I watch the iron-grey river and say, ‘this too shall pass;’ and I am light as a feather from the wing of the seagull shrieking overhead.
So the Spiced Salt Beef (Sugar, spice, memory) made its appearance yesterday, along with other dishes not as long in the making. It was our first party here in Heckington and, unlike at my London party in March, the guests were (almost all) people we have only met very recently. It was very nice to have the house full of people and we enjoyed ourselves.
This sort of cooking takes me back to parties in times gone by. I think of the first party we gave in Manchester, in a terrace house which seemed huge compared to partner’s flat we had just moved out of. Like yesterday it was in dead of winter and we didn’t know anyone very well. It was also rather quiet, which yesterday wasn’t.
Yesterday we ate a chicken and celery salad which reminded me of the coronation chicken I made a lot in the late 70s and early 80s. We also had Tourteau Fromage (see photo below) which is a bit like a cheesecake and a bit like a custard tart. It comes from Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking, her first book, published in 1951, nine years before my birth, and a seminal influence on my life even when I was too young to know it. Tourteau Fromage is the sort of pastry I always hope to find when peering through the bakery window in some small French town.
I went out in the dark to the shops this afternoon, with a sense of winter gloom. But I counted less than four weeks to the solstice, felt the triumph of the light to come, felt excited like a child, as though I could see the sun shine again and the trumpets sounding. There is a miracle in the inexorable rhythm of the seasons, the certainty of change.
And what better way to cheer ourselves in winter than by having parties? We can’t see to tend the land but we can see our friends.
I am at the kitchen window, looking out on the garden as I tear the fat stalks from a glossy sinkful of chard leaves. Baby carrots and cavalo navone (a buttery Italian turnip, highly recommended) are stewing with oil and honey. Steam from the new potatoes rattles the saucepan lid and makes me think of James Watt watching his mother’s kettle and inventing the steam engine.
For the first time most of this evening’s meal comes from the garden. It’s been thin pickings from this new plot compared to recent years when by July we would have been feasting on allotment produce.
My mouth waters in anticipation of the earthy taste of chard and sweet carrots. I love eating things so soon after they come out of the ground or off the plant.
And as I stand there, something flips me back to a much younger self. It’s London in the early 80s and there I am, head over heels in love with the markets like Pimlico’s Warwick Way and Soho’s Berwick Street. I smile a little ruefully at my smugness in knowing the good places to buy food; but it’s nice to remember that child-like pride and pleasure in negotiating the stalls and heaps of produce, coming home with just what I wanted, lovely fresh things crying out to be cooked.
Back then the idea of growing anything other than a few herbs in pots never crossed my mind. I’ve got to know a different way of living, but colours, textures, tastes, the excitement of food are all the same. And at 53, with my hands in a sink full of green leaves, inside I feel just like myself at 23.
Except of course, back then I thought I’d always live in London…
St. Paul’s was striking nine o’clock as I walked down from the Millennium Bridge after taking these photos, hands too cold to hold the iPad anymore; it made me think how much I like the church bells telling the time back in Heckington.
This same weekend last year the sun was shining for my birthday walk and lunch in London; this year, in the wintry weather, only three of us were hardy enough for a short walk.
Lovely friends and family all gone home now after lunch, chat and birthday cake lasting the afternoon. We ate the Spiced Salt Beef that I got the beef for from Bassingthorpe Beef (see A lumpy thing but mine own or At the farmers’ market). The recipe is in Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, perhaps my most-used Elizabeth David cookbook – and her least well-known.
Guests today aged between two and eighty-one, but in the middle a number of my exact contemporaries; people I have known since early childhood or teens or student days, back when we were busy growing into ourselves; people I did all that talking with (see Grantchester reprise).
Very sweet to have these connections still, after so many years.
Along with pictures of St Paul’s and Millennium Bridge, in the gallery above, are the tower of Tate Modern and some of the many silver birches planted in front of it. I always think these look like the Hattifatteners in Finn Family Moomintroll, a favourite childhood book recently revisited.
Last month I mentioned my bay tree that travelled with me from Brixton to Manchester and then, twenty-two years later, from Manchester to Heckington (Vegetable Stories).
Pottery and cooking pots hold other connections, threads running through my life. The ‘pheasant plate’ above was made by a lovely potter called Jill Fanshawe Kato; and I bought it in my mid-twenties, my first serious bit of ceramics buying. I’ve always treasured it, and used it, remember many midnight hours, the party over, friends gone home, after too much to drink, washing it up and putting it away so it didn’t get muddled with other dirty dishes and get broken in the morning.
I remember its first appearances, holding plaited bread for parties in a flat in Victoria. I remember a sort-of-Chinese chicken and beef salad in Brixton and Moss Side, terrines and roast lamb stuffed with spinach in Chorlton.
So when I look at this plate, sitting on a window sill just by me now, it seems to hold all those parties and dinners and friends in all those places; it holds that moment when I felt so grown up, buying a piece of art for myself; within it are centuries of Japanese pot-making, a modern English potter’s love of birds and the pheasants that live in my mother’s garden.
A lot to hold; but clay is dense and deep and weighty, can take it. At my pottery class (Too late, too late…), I’m getting used to the feel of it again after many years; takes me back to London days, ‘my salad days’ when I was young perhaps, but not so green that I couldn’t tell a good pot when I saw it.
And we did eat a lot of salad back then, come to think about it…
A vegetable box arrived bright and early this morning from Woodlands Organic Farm at Kirton, in the fens near Boston. When still back in Manchester, I asked famous Unicorn Grocery about their Lincolnshire suppliers (of whom there are quite a few, this being the vegetable basket of England). They put me on to friendly Pam, from Strawberry Fields farm and she told me about Woodlands.
I’ve never done the veg box thing because in the years that box schemes have really taken off, we (or rather partner) have been growing our own. The vegetables look very nice (especially the fine cauliflower), but I’ve been eating off an allotment, very seasonally and very locally, for so long that I am disconcerted by red pepper and courgettes in January.
I have a strange urge to hide them; so into a soup they go. Also in the pot are onions, a red chilli and squash, all grown on our old plot at Southern Allotments. The squash (pictured above) is a beautiful Crown Prince, grown from seeds given us by a kind friend who also has an allotment.
Crown Prince, with its lovely grey-green, ridged skin, reminds me of a pale green teapot I bought many years ago – contemporary English pottery but with a celadon glaze and very Chinese look about it. I wonder if it is only coincidence that the squash looks like my teapot, or if perhaps some long-ago Chinese potter was inspired by a squash.
Also into the soup I put a couple of bay leaves from a tree which came with me from my Brixton garden nearly 23 years ago. So absurdly pleasing that it has flourished in its pot through all the Manchester years and is here with me in this new place: my continuity girl.
I’ve had an unsettled week. After Doncaster on Wednesday, I went on to Manchester for the night and a tasty Chinese meal. Thursday began with an early walk with friend and her dog; then most of the day was spent with daughter and grandchildren. It was very odd to be back so soon when I don’t live there any more. I’ve been walking with dogs in that park for nearly twenty years and know the house where I stayed overnight almost as well as if it were my own. Everything felt overwhelmingly familiar; I felt like some sort of imposter and everyone was kind and lovely.
To London on Saturday for mum’s birthday party. It was good to catch up with family, my friends, my mum’s friends – much warmth and good conversation – but I come back feeling disconnected. A slight panic sets in that I will not recapture that sense of being home that I have had so strongly since we moved. Monday afternoon I manage, in my distraction, to give myself twice the insulin I needed, a massive dose; and the afternoon is lost in prolonged and disorientating hypoglycaemia.
Something warmer, more alive stirs in my chest when I walk through the churchyard and again, coming home with the dog, across a snowy field, with the church tower black against a sunset sky and a crescent moon hanging above.
I love these medieval buildings being part of the everyday landscape here, as they were in the landscape of my childhood. The presence of the distant past gives me a crazy sense of hope, wrests power from despair. I think that people have not changed that much; I think of how we are connected more than divided. There is peace too, a letting go, an expansiveness to be had from these reminders that life and other people were here before us and will be after, that we are neither the beginning nor the end.